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The Question of Islamic Democracy

Over at NRO, Andrew McCarthy has harsh words for Islamic democracy within the context of an apostasy trial in Afghanistan. NLT has similarly questioned the prudence of supporting democracy in Egypt, precisely due to the possibility of an Islamic Brotherhood majority imposing sharia law.

This is the first great question of the 21st century. George W. Bush answered in the affirmative that all people and religions are capable of sustaining a free and just democracy. Many share or hope to share his optimism, but the years to come will surely test our faith.

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Discussions - 8 Comments

Democracy is the tyranny of the majority. Praise God we do not have a democracy. The Founders, in their God-given Scripture-soaked wisdom, formed a Constitutional Republic, with foundational laws based on, among other things, the knowledge that man is inherently evil, and therefore concentration of power should be prevented.

Of course this only works as long as the citizens make sure it continues to work. It is a testament to the genius of the Founders, and to the other gifts of God to this nation (our moats, the Atlantic and the Pacific, and our natural resources) that we are still a nation despite the fact that we have decades ago negligently allowed our leaders to grossly overstep the bounds of the Constitution, concentrating nearly limitless power in the hands of the feds.

It is dismaying to find so many of even our best, conservative political minds acceding apparently mindlessly to the misidentification of our political system as a democracy, and to the wish that democracy should be foisted on other peoples to their detriment and our danger.

Doc, I think it is safe to assume that when people around here use the word "democracy" they mean "government with consent of the people," not literally the type of democracy that Athens had.

A colleague who has worked in Afghanistan and speaks Dari told me about some of the opinion research that's been done there. Questions probing support for democratic governance tend to show ample backing for it--officials should answer to the people more, etc.

But questions probing attitudes toward women (still commonly treated as chattel in that country) and religion reveal a real "Dark Ages" cast of mind.

"Democracy" as we in the West commonly use the term is shorthand for "liberal democracy"--rule by popular consent, but with certain essential rights and protections for minorities (including that minority of one, the individual). Both stable popular rule and lasting safeguards for rights are best secured by republican institutions, whose special genius is to be based on majority consent yet contain salutary counterbalances to it at the same time.

The "democracy as consent" bit the Muslim world finds easy to swallow (it fits with the strong communitarian streak in Islam, and who doesn't like the idea of more-responsive public officials etc?), but classical liberalism and its core ideas (such as the freedom of conscience) remain, I fear, quite alien, and there is the terrible rub.

We rubbed on that for quite a while. Our liberal democracy as expressed through our republic was not built in a day or even through our revolution, or civil war, nor are we quite settled in it yet. See the post on "Discrimination".

Maybe getting some tyrants out of the way will be destabilizing enough of their settled order that liberal ideas can sneak in past the tryannical majority. It's a hope.

I cannot help but be excited and -- hopeful -- at the probable ousting of Ghaddafi. What a horror he has been.

As to the post, this is the conservative anti-war stand. I find it sympathetic; the more I know about Afghan culture, the more I despise it. This is a conflict of liberality; to loathe a culture for its illiberality or to celebrate the diversity of peoples on the earth. I know Craig will come and roast me for being racist or discriminatory or something, but if we don't use some discrimination between cultures, where are we? Even non-discriminating liberals discriminate against those who would discriminate, no matter what the discriminatory grounds. No, actually, not the latter. They are very discriminating as to what should be discriminated against; Islam is all right and Christianity is suspect.


McCarthy -- can we call this the new McCarthyism? -- is correct that we are compromised in our own liberality by supporting the Afghan constitution as written. Said Musa is guilty of being a Christian and suffering horribly for it.

How do we support this? That faith in democracy offers faint hope, sometimes, Justin.

It could be that over time, even illiberal democracy will have a liberalizing effect in spite of itself: If people are free to discuss and vote on public affairs, extreme harshness in matters of, say, a person's religious affiliation will come to seem less the given order of things.

But if it happens, it won't happen soon enough to help Said Musa. His best bet is international pressure and publicity of the sort which saved that previous Afghan convert five years ago (the Karzai govt ruled that leaving Islam was ipso facto proof of mental illness and let him leave the country for 'treatment,' if I recall).

That's a lot less satisfying than getting Afghanistan to embrace freedom of conscience, but it's the best that can be hoped for right now.

In my darker moments, I fear that we're prisoners of fate riding into the grim part of a massive historical inflection phenomenon in which the world will have to experience something on the order of what Europe went through in the Wars of Religion before the specter of theocracy stops stalking the imagination of the Dar al-Islam.

Given modern population sizes and the destructive power of modern weaponry (to include WMD), I'm not at all confident we can contain the interim damage that will be inflicted before the happy part of the J-curve makes itself manifest.

"It could be that over time, even illiberal democracy will have a liberalizing effect in spite of itself: If people are free to discuss and vote on public affairs, extreme harshness in matters of, say, a person's religious affiliation will come to seem less the given order of things."

Keep in mind that those delightful shuras that go on in Afghanistan are an institution as old as the land itself.

Some NLTer should address this article from The Execrable, Liberal New York Times:

Currently, Tunisia is a moral desert of beer, bikinis, brothels (!!) and 'bortion ((!!!!) had to keep that alliteration!). Tunisia's Islamofascists (to use the Right's favorite term for devout, zealous Muslims) want to get rid of all that, and don't accept that there should be any separation of mosque and state in a country that's predominantly (around 98%) Muslim.

Tunisia's got their equivalents to Rushdoony, Robertson, Falwell, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women of America, etc., etc. They just haven't been as successful - yet.

From the article, for those unable/unwilling to click:

"About 98 percent of the population of 10 million is Muslim, but Tunisia’s liberal social policies and Western lifestyle shatter stereotypes of the Arab world. Abortion is legal, polygamy is banned and women commonly wear bikinis on the country’s Mediterranean beaches. Wine is openly sold in supermarkets and imbibed at bars across the country.

Women’s groups say they are concerned that in the cacophonous aftermath of the revolution, conservative forces could tug the country away from its strict tradition of secularism.

“Nothing is irreversible,” said Khadija Cherif, a former head of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, a feminist organization. “We don’t want to let down our guard.”

Ms. Cherif was one of thousands of Tunisians who marched through Tunis, the capital, on Saturday demanding the separation of mosque and state in one of the largest demonstrations since the overthrow of Mr. Ben Ali.

Protesters held up signs saying, “Politics ruins religion and religion ruins politics.”


In interviews in the Tunisian news media, Ennahdha’s leaders have taken pains to praise tolerance and moderation, comparing themselves to the Islamic parties that govern Turkey and Malaysia.

“We know we have an essentially fragile economy that is very open toward the outside world, to the point of being totally dependent on it,” Hamadi Jebali, the party’s secretary general, said in an interview with the Tunisian magazine Réalités. “We have no interest whatsoever in throwing everything away today or tomorrow.”

The party, which is allied with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, says it opposes the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia.

But some Tunisians say they remain unconvinced.

Raja Mansour, a bank employee in Tunis, said it was too early to tell how the Islamist movement would evolve.

“We don’t know if they are a real threat or not,” she said. “But the best defense is to attack.” By this she meant that secularists should assert themselves, she said. "

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